Why Are My Dreams So Stressful?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Sleep is supposed to be restful, right? For a few years now, my nights have been anything but. I wake up exhausted because my dreams are more tiring than being awake. They typically involve a chase of some sort, sometimes by car or boat, but usually on foot. It always feels like I’m trying to move in mud, or like there are invisible arms holding me back when I try to run, and I can never get anywhere as fast as I think I can. When I try to shout in a dream, my voice comes out muffled and restrained. Very often, water is a prominent feature in my dreams—enormous pools, open seas, or floods.

These dreams are becoming more and more violent, too. Though I almost never die in my dreams, the situation occasionally comes close. I find myself encountering and using weapons I’ve never even touched in real life, let alone used against someone. But my dreams present scenarios in which I must fight for my life, sometimes to the death. 

I am not a violent person, and the thought of killing someone, even in my dreams, horrifies me. I do feel stressed quite a bit in life, and I imagine that’s a big factor in my dreams. But it’s not like I’m encountering life-or-death scenarios or anything. My life is not filled with violence. I have never been to war. I do not play, and never have played, violent video games. Sometimes I watch scary movies or TV shows, but even those don’t fill me with the kind of terror I experience in my dreams. 

I’m growing weary of the trauma of dodging bullets in my dream life. I’ll take any hint or suggestion for how to calm my dream state, whether it’s to eat more leafy green vegetables or stop wearing socks. —Wildest Dreams

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Dear Wildest Dreams,

First of all, thank you for reaching out. I have much compassion for people experiencing nightmares, especially because our brains and bodies physiologically react as if the experience is happening in waking life. Losing sleep also affects memory, everyday responses, and overall health. The good news is nightmares are normal part of human development and are often exaggerated so we may remember them. Dream pioneer Jeremy Taylor writes, “All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a ‘bad dream’—only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” In other words, nightmares are a healthy way for us to work through whatever life-changing event or deep internal changes we are going through so we can tend to their messages. Once we face our fears, become engaged with the emotions, and tend to the dream material, we can “transform the energy.”

Take comfort in knowing that when we remember a dream, it means we can do something about it.

Here are some thoughts on the particular themes in your dreams that might shed some light on what may be going on in your waking life. It is important to note that although humans share a “collective memory,” we are also individuals. To truly engage fully with a dream, one must be mindful of these nuances, including personal associations, experiences, and emotional content.

Take comfort in knowing that when we remember a dream, it means we can do something about it.

Chased or Attacked by Someone or Something

The “chase” dream is a common one, especially with women who feel particularly vulnerable in waking life. Often the dreamer is being chased by an ominous being (or beings), which could be anything from “the dark figure” with no recognizable features to monstrous entities such as dinosaurs or zombies. It is important to note who or what is doing the chasing, paying close attentions to the characteristics. Who are you killing? What types of weapons are you using? If it is a vampire, are you dealing with lifeless bloodsucking energy in your life? Perhaps there are parts or patterns that need “killing off” in terms of character traits/people/situations/habits in your life that are no longer working for you. 

Feeling of Paralysis or Heaviness

These types of dreams are common because there is an actual physiological paralysis that occurs naturally during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage in sleep so the dreamer does not physically act out dreams (and hurt somebody!). Sometimes this state might seep into dreams as the condition of not being able to walk, run, or move, especially when in danger. It could also be a symbol of feeling helpless or stuck in a situation in waking life. 

Water in Dreams

The big wave, pool, or flood in a dream is pretty common, and it often indicates either some emotional overwhelm in the dreamer’s waking life or “big material” coming out of the unconscious. Am I feeling overwhelmed? Am I not tending to my emotions? 

Recurring Nightmares and Emotions

You mentioned the nightmares began years ago. I would explore if there was any particular event that happened when the nightmares began. One of the main symptoms of trauma is the affliction of frequent or recurring nightmares.

In my experience as a therapist specializing in dreams, I have noticed that the more engaged a person is in the healing work, the deeper the healing that can take place. This includes getting support from a professional who is trained in working with nightmares and dream analysis.

Warm regards,

Linda

Linda Mastrangelo
Linda Mastrangelo, MA, LMFT is an educator, artist, and psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in grief and dreamwork. She has presented her work on dreams internationally and in numerous publications. Linda also serves on the board of directors and as continuing education administrator and editor of “Dream News” for the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD).
  • 5 comments
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  • Martha

    September 17th, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    Stressful because they are usually a reflection of what is going on in us internally anyway, just another way of that being let out.

  • tamara

    September 19th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    Mine have been so anxiety inducing at times that I would not sleep for as long as possible because I didn’t like what I would have to confront at night

  • Theo

    September 20th, 2016 at 2:09 PM

    I have heard it said that
    dreams are a way of confronting those things
    which we are too afraid to confront IRL?

  • Ricardo

    September 21st, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    What is the scariest to me is that this is not something that we can easily control, they come out of left field and how can you even stop them when you are asleep and dreaming? It’s like you are so vividly experiencing that and it can be frightening to have gone through all of that even in a sleep state.

  • Mary

    January 4th, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    My dreams are so disturbing: In my dreams I’m engaged in boring, repetitive, tedious tasks for which I have no ability to abandon…and this goes on for the entire night!!! Help! :-)

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